We Need To Talk About ‘The Undateables’

Author’s Note:  I don’t watch much TV, so the return of a series like The Undateables tends to sneak up on me and catch me off guard.  It came back onto my radar last week and I’ve sat on this blog entry for all of that time.  You see, the mere fact that a show like The Undateables exists is enough to get my blood pressure ticking upwards, I shall do my best to make a broader point in this piece, but if it devolves into a rant – I shall make only limited apologies…

As someone who’s still coming to terms with the fact that at the age of 30 I find myself in my first romantic relationship, I find myself consistently having to challenge self-images and narratives built up over many years of how undateable I was.  When something or someone comes into your life that causes you to challenge everything you thought about yourself and your body, it’s rather like your brain is a snow-globe that someone has violently shaken – you have to wait for everything to settle down a bit and then try and make sense of it…

I had considered myself undateable for a long time.  And as a disabled person who felt that way I was far from alone.  Most disabled people want and need the same things as their able-bodied peers and love, romance and sex are no exception.  But the fact that most disabled people have encountered the question of how we go to the toilet, or if you’re in a wheelchair, being asked if you can walk at all, indicates that wider society has a lot of catching up to do in terms of realising that we’re for the most part, looking for the same things.

Many disabled people find it difficult to get into romantic relationships because we are given the very strong sense from the world around us, that we are not viable partners, that we are unattractive due to disability and that the dating game is very much one to which we are not invited.  Everything around us tells us that we aren’t considered as sexual or romantic beings, and if we’re thought of in this context at all, we are often seen as childish and childlike.  There is an overarching stereotype that we are undateable.  Speaking for myself, I used to feel that somewhere in my teens I’d missed a very important meeting where the rules of the game were explained just enough so that we would all feel confident enough to play.  Later on I felt more and more that I’d missed the important meeting because I was intentionally excluded.

Into this atmosphere of social and romantic isolation then, comes a show called The Undateables.  For those that haven’t seen it, it’s a show that follows disabled people looking for love and goes with them on their dates set up by specialist agencies (who after a bit of digging, you find charge astronomical fees for the privilege).  In researching for this piece, I have been in touch with three participants on the show who all said that their personal experience of the team working on the show was a positive one and something that they are pleased to have done.  So I don’t want this to become a hit-piece aimed at individuals, I suspect that the people behind the show are well-intentioned and looking to do the best job.  My problem is not so much with them, but the fact that the show even exists…

Straight away the title The Undateables raises hackles.  Defenders of the show will tell you that in the title sequence, cupid’s arrow shoots off the ‘un’ so that we are in fact ‘dateable’ – how very edgy Channel 4…To this I respond that the show still retains it’s full title.  It is called The Undateables and however witty the producers feel they are being, they contribute to negative stereotypes about disabled people by retaining it.  If you want to challenge the idea that we’re undateable, don’t do it by trying to knock down the idea in such a laboured and half-hearted way.  And don’t do it by contributing to the toxicity in the first place.  Furthermore, what other minority or underrepresented group would accept such a title?  Imagine the uproar if The Undateables was about people looking for love who were elderly, or of different races or religions, or living in poverty?  Only for the disabled would a title like this even make it past the initial pitch.

And isn’t it telling that we disabled people, get our own show?  One participant I’ve been in touch with, told me that they applied for the show because “I knew that shows like ‘First Dates’ wouldn’t accept me”.  It is striking that while there is increasing coverage and representation of disabled people in media, it is almost always in a disability context.  It is representation but not integration.  Disabled people may be more visible, but there’s still a feeling that this comes with an air of the freak-show or the nature documentary.  At the end of the day, the disabled people in the show, although we are told they are just like anyone else, are still pointed out because of their disability.  There’s a strong tinge of inspiration porn around this, and while that may not be the show’s intent, one only need look at the twitter comments as the show airs to see that that is how it is received by an audience, looking for feels, but not actually to be challenged about perceptions of disability.  It’s the same feelgood empowerment message that many people seemed to take from The Greatest Showman movie, despite the fact that P. T. Barnum for everything else he may have been, made money from a ‘freakshow’ exploiting the mere existence of disabled or ‘different’ people.  But no, let’s dress up disability in positivity and good attitudes, and the wider context is somehow forgivable?

I watched last night’s episode, I wasn’t going to, but I’m a sucker for intellectual honesty and felt I should.  The other main argument I see from defenders of the show, is that it challenges attitudes to disability.  Having watched last night, I am forced to ask, “Where!?” Simply having a show that points out that disabled people can date, is barely challenging, and if this is the bar that we’re setting for challenging reality TV, then that is simply not good enough.  The audience is not challenged through being shown that disabled people can have normal lives.  Two of last night’s participants lived at home with parents and this was presented in such a way that it was infantilising as if it were a given that the parents were really carers.  This might be the case, but it may also be because living independently is often unaffordable for many people – disabled or otherwise!  But while we’re given no real sense of the participants’ lives outside of their disability, one participant’s need to tell prospective partners about how he acquired his disability was presented very negatively.  I get that it’s a lot for potential matches to handle, but the denial of this essential part of the person’s story was really jarring and again showed that the show only wants disability presented on certain ‘safe’ terms.  We’re repeatedly told by a narrator who seems to treat the show like a nature documentary, that the participants have hardly or never dated, but at no point do we get into the why?  What is it that stops disabled people from dating?  What is it that makes us feel unwanted, unromantic, ugly or non-sexual?  If these questions were asked, then maybe that would challenge an audience to look at their own preconceptions.  But the show doesn’t go there, instead it merely puts participants through a dating agency who can then white-knight rescue them and hook them up with a prospective partner.  As if it’s all that easy.  As if it’s as simple as going through an agency who will cost you thousands of pounds, and what the show unwittingly does, is put the entire emphasis on the disabled to push against a societal prejudice, rather than give the society a reason to change.

The Undateables may be well-intentioned, but while claiming to want to challenge people around disability, it seems to me that it inadvertently maintains a toxic status quo.



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